Project Canterbury

Charles John Corfe
Naval Chaplain--Bishop

By H.H. Montgomery

[London:] Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, 1927.

Chapter V. Corea. The First Years.

It is not for me in this brief biography to write the history of the diocese, my duty being to tell of the man--its first Bishop, Reluctantly I must pass over the work of Corfe's pioneers, except when they come into his letters or, rather, into those letters which I quote, longing all the time to double the extracts from them. For my omissions I must refer to Bishop Trollope's delightful volume already mentioned.

His book divides Corfe's episcopate into two divisions of seven years each. Indeed, seven years elapsed before the baptism of the first Coreans in 1897, and thus it forms an epoch. The next seven years became a record of expansion,


It will be convenient if I put together a few details of those years and their dates.

1890.--Corfe obtained a grant of £600 from S.P.G. It was for 12 men! He said £50 was enough for a man--£100 being luxury! Two medical men went with him, Landis and Wiles, for hospitals at Chemulpo and Seoul; also two bluejackets. The first church built at Chemulpo.

1891.--Anglican jurisdiction over a large part of Manchuria handed over to him. He also built his "Palace" at Seoul. The first celebration of Holy Communion according to the English Prayerbook, on Easter Day in Manchuria at Newchwang. The Naval Chaplains gave a printing press.

1892.--The first Anglican Church opened in Seoul. For some years ministrations were for the European population. The clergy were learning the language. Their first work, and one of the very best, was the production of Lumen.

1894.--Corfe proposed that the missionaries should say their private prayers in Corean. They "discovered" the island of Kanghwa as a great missionary centre of the future.

1896.--Six Coreans were admitted as catechumens in Kanghwa. In November, 1897, two of these were baptized, but in the Bishop's absence at the Lambeth Conference. There were in Corea at the time four English clergy. During these years, Sir Walter Hillier was the British Consul in Seoul.



January 27, 1891.--(To his brother Robert): "The Palace here is a house which has got just four rooms, with no front door apart from the windows, and no hall and no passages. Each room leads into the other. In the corner in which all the rooms meet there is a chimney, which serves for a stove in each room. My food, therefore, has always a wholesome flavour about it--I don't quite know of what, but a was more than that--which I heard, namely, that when he had been at work some four years, some lady asked him how many converts had been made, and Corfe burst out: "Thank God, madam, not one."

(Written on Christmas Day, 1890.)

"I sit down to tell you of the very unique and remarkable way in which the first Christmas Day is being observed by two of us in Seoul." Peake and he walked from Chemulpo, 24 miles in seven hours, bitterly cold, Corfe's beard and moustache frozen together. He describes the Seoul house: "We have servants' quarters, but no servant, only a Corean coolie to light the fire and fetch water. The front door is, in reality, a double window, consisting of thin paper pasted over a trellis pattern of wood." He describes the furniture--a table, two cots, three croquet chairs. The room held just 19. He describes furniture for the chapel, the most primitive possible. "At 8 a.m. we had Litany. It is not a Litany day, but no one needs mercy more than ourselves. We proceeded to the Celebration with three outsiders. ... At 9 a.m. we sat down very hungry to the remains or a tin of Chicago beef; a pot of strawberry jam, sent from Chefoo, completed our bliss. At n a.m. more outsiders came. Afterwards, are you shocked to hear that pipes were lit? . . . Whilst we were at breakfast, six mince pies came in from the Consulate (Mr. Hillier's), and shortly before that a sugared cake from the Chinaman who sold us the carpet. At 5 we are going to have Evensong, and at 7 p.m. dine at the Consulate."


"At the Ante-Communion Service at 8 I had a congregation of one; at Mattins, a congregation of two, whom I spared and did not detain for the three hours devotion,"

Corfe discerned as soon as he landed in Corea that he must avoid all political partisanship. The country was between at least three jealous kingdoms. In his first month (October, 1890) he writes: "I have taken a bird's eye view of Seoul politics. [He then alludes to his apprehensions concerning the attitude of other Christian Missions.] We shall have to be most careful of ail we do or say or write. Morning Calm will be criticised most severely--not by Coreans, but by American Nonconformist missionaries.

The greater discretion must be exercised by us. We must have no political allusions in "M. C." of any kind. When they appear in my letters you must not let them go beyond the charmed circle." It will be known to all who have kept in touch with this Mission that the policy laid down by Corfe in 1890 has been consistently carried out to this day. Sir Walter Hillier gives his splendid testimony: "As British representative at Seoul, I had the privilege of negotiating and completing the purchase of the premises of the S.P.G. Mission in that city. ... I also arranged for and superintended the building of the first Anglican church in Seoul. . . . There is one thing I can say about my dear friend and his Mission. It is that during the whole time of my relations with the Mission in my capacity as British representative in Corea, my relations with the Bishop and his whole staff were most cordial. I never had any difference of opinion with him in matters that required suggestions from me, and I think it says much for the tact and wisdom with which he carried on his work, full of difficulties in its initiatory stages, that there was never any single word of complaint from the Corean authorities as to the action of the Mission during my term of office. When we remember that there was no Missionary Toleration Clause in our treaty with Corea, and that missionaries as such had no special privileges in that country, it says much for the wise administration of the founder of the Mission that no complaint was ever made to me of irregular or objectionable action against any member of Bishop Corfe's Mission." Corfe, indeed, before he arrived in Corea, had announced that they would not ask for protection under any treaty, though he was aware that the people hated foreigners who were resident. He went out, "called to watch a sunrise" so far as the Anglican Church was concerned,

As has already been stated, Corfe was requested to add a great district in Manchuria to his jurisdiction, and specially for the sake of Europeans settled at Newchwang. For years it had been a Treaty Port, but no resident clergyman had been settled there, much to the sorrow of Bishop Scott, There was to be no additional income. He loved the work, but it was a heavy tax on his strength. Indeed he writes in 1892: "Here a sheer hulk lies the Bishop of two Provinces! He has got rheumatism in both ancles--an ancle for each Province!" It ended in a fainting fit on Trinity Sunday, his "silver wedding day" (his ordination), as he tried to celebrate, but he failed.

On April 29, 1892, from Newchwang, he writes that the Firebrand came into port. The men had come ashore to his service. He returned to them in the afternoon utterly content. One of the gunner's mates produced a copy of Morning Calm. "The effect was magical."

In 1896 he felt something must be done to relieve the strain. "I often feel limp, and sometimes think I should break down if I were not kept going--like the cab horses in 'Pickwick,' by never leaving the shafts."

December 31, 1896.--"I still think it probable that I shall go to England in the Spring. ... I am coming home to get the big diocese cut in two. The supervision of two countries, and the two languages, is too much for me. The work is languishing for want of a head in both Corea and Manchuria. . . But I hope to see your ship, and that will be a great joy, though I am getting very shy when ship visiting now. The old wounds open and I get miserable."

As a matter of fact it was the Bishop's duty to come home in 1897 in order to attend the Lambeth Conference.

Perhaps what held him back is explained by the following extract from one of his letters:--"Knowing naval men pretty well by this time I was aware that they would expect me to get bored by the work and return to England 'at the end of the commission.' Consequently from the first when they have said to me, 'when are you going to take a trip to England?' I have invariably said, 'I hope never. This commission is for life, unless I get blind and deaf and an encumbrance to the work." In this I have never wavered, though I have invariably added that ' it is absurd for a man to say he will never return to England again if business calls one. If such is the case I trust I shall come back as soon as possible.'"

Corfe and his colleagues devoted themselves unsparingly to the study of the language throughout the first three or four years. Till they could publish something, or speak to Coreans, their foundations would not be laid. Their first effort consisted in the preparation of a "Tract," and truly admirable it was in its conception. They wished to give a careful answer to the question, "What is the Faith you preach?" "By what authority do you do these things?" They feared lest their insufficient knowledge of the languages might lead astray those who were being instructed, "Lumen"--the first word of "A Light to Lighten the Gentiles"--gives a concise history of the life of our Lord in Scripture language and in 400 verses. The preface is the speech of St. Paul at Athens, and there is a summing-up at the end in words from the Epistles.

It is excellent for use, whether at home or abroad, and was published by S.P.C.K, in the English edition.

Corfe presented a copy to all the Bishops at the Lambeth Conference of 1897; the Bishop of Chota Nagpur had it translated into Hindi. In 1890 the Mission had no Prayer Book or Catechism in Corean, nor even an adequate translation of the Bible, the available portions of it were considered unsatisfactory even by the translators at that date. Lumen was printed by the Mission Press in two languages, in Chinese and in En-Moun, the alphabetical script used in Corea, except by the educated. The whole Mission staff was engaged in this task, Corfe himself spending all available time on it. And here it is only right to set forth the true state of the case regarding Bishop Corfe's linguistic difficulties. His failure was confined to the spoken Corean. He was never able either to understand colloquial Corean, or to speak it acceptably. But it was very different with the written language. He gained a good knowledge of Chinese and of Corean for the purposes of writing and translations.

On February 6, 1893, he writes to (now Admiral) Richard Webb: "This language is a great difficulty to me. I know thousands of words, but hardly know how to string them together; and if I do, I take such a long time about it that the man is out of sight before I can get my question off."

I break off now to tell of the more human side.

To a Naval friend, 1891.--"The work has been incessant since I left England. I used to be too busy to write because of the many sermons which had to be preached in all parts of England. I have no sermons now--have not preached for nearly three months. But there has been an amazing lot of work to do in settling people down into houses, and a regular habit of living. . . . Think of me, therefore, as a skipper of a very small craft--a torpedo-boat if you like--with a crew of nine men.

. . . The fact is my missionary work has not really begun yet, and will not begin until I can make something of this difficult language. So that I am at school once more."

He is enthusiastic over Dr. Wiles, "who not only will not receive a penny from the Mission, but uses all his large practice in Seoul on behalf of the Mission, giving us money or building us hospitals. That is the kind of missionary I like--and nearly 70 too!"

"How thankful I am now that in my missionary travels in England I everywhere put five or seven years as the limit when we might expect to have work to report which would be recognised as 'progress' by the ordinary Englishman. And yet none of my people are idle. Personally I feel a great goose. I ought to be at the head of them all, talking and acting. On the contrary I do nothing, and in the presence of a Corean am as silent as Sam Weiler's 'drum with a hole in it.' All these side-lights will serve to make you acquainted with the present position of the Mission, its difficulties, desires, failures, fears and hopes."

"I have reams of letters to write; have even given up learning Corean for a time to write them. The burden of responsibility and routine business has increased largely of late, and I long more than ever for the day--which seems further off than ever--when I can go and bury myself in the country and live amongst these people and away from ail white men. ... I shall never learn to love and know my business until I do live amongst them. What a growl this is! ... Accustom yourself to think of these poor people in China and Japan as made, like you, in God's image. They have their hopes and fears; their nobility of nature; their finer, gentler human feelings, as our mothers and sisters have. The Englishman should walk amongst them with an air of 'noblesse oblige'--shrinking from base and mean and cowardly and selfish actions, because he is an Englishman, and because they are just the sort of people who are likely to be raised above their present level when they see their finer and more generous feelings displayed in an Englishman who has such advantages over them. I am a horrid Briton, and think that the God-fearing Englishman is the finest creature on God's earth. . . .

"Pray see as much of the good people in Vassall Road as you can. It is a grand place in which to go into dry dock and have the barnacles scraped off. I always found it so, and hope with all my heart that you, too, will do the same. Never be ashamed to go. No matter how bad things have been with you.....

"I hear very little naval news now. Perhaps that is good for me; but I am always hungry for it.

"The day before yesterday I left Corea in Leander, which brought the Minister on a visit from Peking. Those dear Leanders, they have been so kind; but I was not forty-eight hours on board. Of course, I have got Navy fever again, and must quickly dive into Chinese dirt and ignorance to get cured of it."

To the same.

"Don't take it to heart if you cannot get--(a much-wanted appointment). If you do not get appointed it will be because God has something better for you. And see that you are prepared to take it when it is offered. Don't put it down as a thing you didn't deserve if your application is refused. Charles Gordon never set his heart on things in such a way as to be in despair if he never got them. It is hard, I know, to do it; but it is so much braver and freer to say: 'Where God does not point, there I will not willingly go--however much my own will points in that direction. For to carry out my own will when it is not His will concerning me is to debase myself to court disaster,' ... I counsel you to cast all your care on Him Who cares for you. This sounds like nonsense: you cannot--or, at least, you won't--cast all your care on Him, But you will cast your care on Him more and more and find in doing so your true 'heartsease.'"

Corfe expected early in 1892 a visit from Father Benson. On January 6, he writes characteristically from Chemulpo: "To-day I feel as if I had been lifted up to a great height and suddenly let fall, coming down with a bump. For more than three weeks letters and telegrams have prepared me for a visit from Father Benson, one of my oldest and dearest friends, on his way home from Bombay to Boston. He was to spend three precious days with us. All the Mission was coming from Seoul, and on the second day I had proposed to have a Retreat conducted by him. Everything was ready, even a leg of mutton and a meat pie (for such things are necessary, you know, even for Retreats). The steamer arrived this morning. The Epiphany Celebration in St. Michael's Church was delayed until I should arrive from the steamer with the Father a prisoner. But there was no Father, only a horrid letter saying that the steamers were so inconvenient that he could not make the connexion. So a telegram was sent to Seoul, "don't come." The grotesqueness of the situation as usual came to my relief, and I have been roaring with laughter, especially at the poor discredited meat pie. But, if I hadn't laughed I should have cried, so great is the apparent loss to us; but if we only bear it as we ought it will turn out to have been no loss, but a greater gain than his coming would have been. God is so wise, you know. It sounds like a truism, but we don't half believe it."

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